One of the great novels of the 20th century, rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, All the King’s Men mixed sex, violence and political intrigue with heady speculation about good and evil, history and time, and the natures of God and man. Robert Rossen adapted Robert Penn Warren’s ambitious saga into an acclaimed film that garnered seven Academy Award nominations and three Oscars, including best actor for Broderick Crawford as populist-turned-demagogue Willie Stark, the fictional avatar of flamboyant Louisiana governor (and later U.S. senator) Huey P. Long.

A hard act to follow, even though half a century has passed, but writer and director Steven Zaillian has managed a remake worthy of the original, and little wonder. He had celebrated strategist James Carville, who learned his political skills in Louisiana, as an executive producer, as well as a superb cast featuring Sean Penn as Stark, Jude Law as Jack Burden, the cynical newspaperman who narrates the story, and Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, the compromised idealist. But Zaillian, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Schindler’s List, deserves highest praise for writing a screenplay that respects Warren’s themes (or those as he could squeeze into two hours) and that captures the feel of his novel.

“One of the difficulties with adapting a book is always its length and detail,” says Zaillian, who economically establishes the gothic style of All the King’s Men in the first frames of the film, training his camera on a bullet-nosed Ford eating up the blacktop (a central image in the book), then on the driver packing a .38 special (he’ll use it), and finally on the travelers’ destination, a decaying mansion draped with moss, that overwrought but always evocative image of the Old South. “It’s a long novel, so you try to somehow maintain the nuances, and not just dwell on the plot, because oftentimes, that’s what makes a book great.”

The plot poses challenges enough, interweaving multiple storylines involving past sins that bubble up from the murky bayou. Stark acts out his own Greek tragedy, but he also sets in motion a series of melodramas involving dark family secrets, jealous lovers and misguided revenge. The characters pause to debate philosophy—chiefly, whether benevolent ends justify crooked means—but they expend more passion on their private longings, regrets and injuries. All the King’s Men is as much an old-fashioned potboiler as it is a political morality tale.

Still, bigger-than-life Willie Stark, the self-described hick who rides scandal straight into the statehouse, remains the center of the film. If Broderick had the advantage of resembling Long, Penn puts his trademark sneer (as well as his boyish charm) to good use evoking the Kingfish. He gets methody in the oratorical scenes, especially those filmed at night in front of the actual art-deco capitol in Baton Rouge, flailing his arms and twisting his torso like Joe Cocker (choices he might not have made had he put on 60 pounds for the role). On the other hand, he affects a believable accent and delivers Warren’s biblical dialogue (worked into the script) with Southern grace. “Jack, there’s sumtin’ on e’vrybody,” he tells Burden, rolling the marbles in his mouth. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”

Jude Law is even better as Burden; one could argue he steals the movie from Penn except that his character is the real protagonist anyway. Suffering, as his surname suggests, under the weight of the past, that of his family as well as his culture, he is paralyzed by irony and paradox. Law lets us see and hear Burden’s ennui—his impotence—with his posture and his drawl. His failure to act or, rather, his uncanny ability to make the wrong decisions when he does act, is the true tragedy of All the King’s Men.

Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo prove adequate as Anne and Adam Stanton, Burden’s sibling friends who get caught in Stark’s web, but they have little purpose in the remake other than to move the plot forward. James Gandolfini is more amusing than menacing as Tiny Duffy, Stark’s sometime nemesis, playing against type. Patricia Clarkson gives a low-key but convincing performance as Sadie Burke, Stark’s political operative and mistress, the role that won newcomer Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in 1949. Hopkins doesn’t bother with an accent as Judge Irwin, but he looks the part of an aging Southern gentleman whose noble bearing hides terrible truths.

Zaillian moves the film’s time frame forward into the '50s, two decades after Long shuffled off this mortal coil, but the production design, perhaps hoping to evoke Depression-era poverty, feels like the '40s and '30s. This All the King’s Men exists in a time warp, a cinematic world that that owes something to Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire and Rossen’s original. Warren would have approved, for he was less interested in recreating a specific time and place than he was in understanding human nature.